The Hold Steady: High as Hell and Born Again

The Hold SteadyThe Hold Steady at Logan Square Auditorium

Chicago, October 28, 2005

Fresh off a series of Target commercials, a gushfest on NPR, a run through the late-night talk show circuit, and even a namedrop on Lost, The Hold Steady rolled into Chicago’s Logan Square Auditorium as the unlikeliest heroes among the crop of indie rock bands currently threatening to Deathcab it on through to the other side. With their chunky glasses, monstrous classic-rock riffs, abrasive vocals, religious allusions, and even a receding hairline or two, The Hold Steady don’t exactly give off a “ready for primetime” kind of vibe. All of this just makes the inkling of success sweeter. If you find “Charlemagne in Sweatpants” on the soundtrack to next Cameron Crowe movie, it won’t be because The Hold Steady made something easy and inoffensive. It will be because the system worked for once. It will be because they are too good to ignore.

The Hold Steady hewed to rock-show convention by opening with Track One/Side One (“Hornets! Hornets!”) of their new album (Separation Sunday). Critics of this band often try to have it both ways, acknowledging the band itself on technical merits, but hemming and hawing about frontman Craig Finn, thinking him “whiny,” or “nasal,” or just overly chatty. But as soon as Finn howled out the opening lines to “Hornets! Hornets!” before the band broke in, it was clear that, in this rare case, “band” and “frontman” aren’t at all separable. The band made Logan Square Auditorium’s weird ballroom ring out with their Replacements-via-Bad-Company, rock-with-an-aw bombast. I’ve seen plenty of good bands flounder at the LSA, a place with a rep for bad sound. I can’t stress enough what an odd venue this hardwood, second-floor reception hall is for a rock show. On the other hand, I hear they had a quinceaƱera here in 2002 that absolutely turned the motherfucker out.

But all this would have been for naught if it weren’t for that diminutive, bespectacled, flailing, three-quarters wasted Craig Finn. On previous outings, I’ve complained that the rhythm section drowned out the guitar and vocals, a problem that could spell death for a band as lyrical as The Hold Steady. By now, though, Finn has embraced this live quirk. You can hear him well enough, and, when you can’t, he gets extra red-in-the-face, stomping around and clapping in awkward seventh-grade-dance manner, a man possessed, a streetcorner preacher, struggling to make his religious sermons/bar stories heard over rush of noise surrounding him. He’s drawn his share of criticism from people who think lyrics like “You remind me of Rod Stewart when he was young / You got passion and you think that you’re sexy / And all the punks think that you’re dumb” are too overly clever to be sincere, but if his unhinged stage presence in any indication, the man means every goddamn word.

Since the touring for their first album, Almost Killed Me, The Hold Steady have added a few wrinkles. Namely, they’ve added a keyboardist with a Snidley Whiplash ‘stache and a cabbie hat, and they’ve added a whole bunch of religious posturing. Don’t worry, it’s all in the lyrics. No crucifixion poses on stage to report. Craig Finn ain’t Bono, and he ain’t Scott Stapp, and I ain’t complaining. When rock takes on Christianity, you tend to get either lite rock or lite religion. Or downright hostility toward religion. The Hold Steady have found away around this trap, by simply making religion part of the story. Craig Finn gives shout-outs to St. Theresa and St. Barbara, sure, but they’re no different from his shout-outs to Meatloaf, Kate Bush, hard drugs, or, of course, The Twin Cities.

And speaking of faith-based, bear with me for a second when I tell you that, three days prior to this show, The Hold Steady played at the Littleton (CO) High School Gym. At a lull, while Finn was grabbing his fifth or sixth beer or the set, he told the story. It seems that, in a class for at-risk 12-15 year-olds, a teacher at Littleton has been teaching nothing but Separation Sunday for the last month or so. For lit class, they analyzed lyrics. For geography, each kid presented about a stop on The Hold Steady’s tour. In math, they calculated how much gas money the band would need to get from Seattle to Portland. As a culmination, the band played an acoustic show for the kids, and judged a Hold Steady lookalike contest. Go ahead and read that last part again. It says what you think it says. I relate this story because Finn’s reaction to telling it goes against his image as a smartass, and it means Glorious Noise might need to draft a cease and desist letter: He thanked the teacher who invited him, saying he was happy that there are still people who “believe in the power of rock and roll to change lives.”

4 thoughts on “The Hold Steady: High as Hell and Born Again”

  1. when i win the lottery i am going to have the hold steady come play in my backyard. in the mean time though, great article and i am hoping they make their way down to the ATL sometime soon.

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